Learning Skills

Designing Research

See also: Writing a Research Proposal.

Our page Introduction to Research Methods explains that the philosophical approach that you take to the world, and to its investigation, underpins the methods that you use to carry out research.

This page explains some basic types of research, and their advantages and disadvantages.

Your philosophy, and therefore your choice of research methods, is likely to be influenced by many things: your colleagues’ views, your organisation’s approach, your supervisor’s beliefs, and your own experience.

There is no right or wrong answer to choosing your research methods.

However, the method you choose needs to answer your research question.

For example, if you want to explore the reasons why people choose certain careers, you are going to need to talk to people. Counting the number of people choosing nursing will not tell you why these choices are made.

If, on the other hand, you want to know whether more people opt for caring professions, then you will want some hard data about applications to universities and colleges, and job applications.

Approaching Research Five Questions:

Whatever approach you choose for your research, you need to consider five questions:

  1. What is the unit of analysis? For example, country, company or individual.

  2. Are you relying on universal theory or local knowledge? In other words, will your results be generalisable, and produce universally applicable results, or are there local factors that will affect your results?

  3. Will theory or data come first? Should you read the literature first, and then develop your theory, or will you gather your data and develop your theory from that? Recently, opinion seems to have swung towards this being an iterative process.

  4. Will your study be cross-sectional or longitudinal? Are you looking at one point in time, or changes over time?

  5. Will you verify or falsify a theory? You cannot conclusively prove any theory; the best that you can do is find nothing that disproves it. It is therefore easier to formulate a theory that you can try to disprove, because you only need one ‘wrong’ answer to do so.

All Swans are White

One way of thinking about this is to formulate a theory that all swans are white. To verify this, you would have to look at every swan in the world. In the UK, you can gather a vast amount of data that suggests that your theory is correct, but still not prove it conclusively.

To disprove it, in other words taking the falsification route, you simply have to find one swan which is not white. Visit a zoo or Australia to find a black swan and your theory can be discarded.

Some Basic Research Designs

There are several broad types of research design, some of which are broadly quantitative, some qualitative, and some mixed.

Experimental Designs

These usually involve two groups: an experimental group, which receives an intervention of some sort, and a control group, which either receives no intervention, or a non-effective one. Clinical trials are usually of this type. The aim of research of this type is to remove all possible alternative explanations for the results (high internal validity) and to make them as generalisable as possible (high external validity).

Useful when you want to test a particular intervention, and you can disguise whether it is being used or not.
Less useful when you need to understand why something is happening.

Quasi-Experimental Designs

These are used when an experimental design would be ideal but is not possible, for example because of the length of time required for the study or the difficulty of keeping an experimental group separate from the control group. Researchers usually test before and after an intervention to see what effect it has had. Again, these types of studies try to maximise validity.

Useful when a full experimental design is not possible but you need that kind of separation of the groups.
Less useful when you can carry out a full experimental design, or you need to understand why something is happening.

Survey Research

See our page: Surveys and Survey Design for more information.

Surveys may be factual, inferential or exploratory. They may either start with an idea, and try to prove it by collecting information, or collect a large amount of information and see what emerges. The main issue with a survey is reliability: whether the survey accurately assesses the desired variable. Surveys are usually pre-tested on a small sample before being used more widely and, for this reason, many researchers choose to use established questionnaires rather than develop their own whenever possible. They can be used either on a large sample or as structured interviews on a smaller sample.

Useful when you want to gather data from lots of different people and you can formulate questions that can be answered fairly simply.
Less useful when you want to explore individual experience in detail.

Action Research and Cooperative Inquiry

This type of research assumes that the researcher is a key part of the research, rather than an external force. It emerged from the idea that the best way to learn about an organisation is to try to change it, and also that those involved in change should be encouraged to influence the change.

Useful when you, the researcher, are part of the organisation.
Less useful when you need to gather hard data from an objective viewpoint.


In this type of research, the researcher immerses him or herself in the research setting and becomes a part of the group under study. Some of the original ethnographers went to live with remote tribes in the jungle. Ethnographic studies are very authentic: the researcher understands the organisation from the inside.

Useful for researchers who are internal to the organisation that they are studying, which often happens for those on executive MBAs.
Less useful when you need an objective study.

Narrative approaches

These approaches gather information by developing or gathering stories about a particular subject.

Useful for generating a ‘group history’ of events, or finding out about relationships or values.
Less useful when you need an objective approach.

Case studies

These take either one or several examples, and study it or them in detail, then draw out the more general lessons for wider application. Researchers may try to take a more rigorous approach to demonstrating validity, and ensure that logic is applied to any comparisons, or focus on creating a detailed picture. Although a case study cannot prove a theory, it can be used to disprove one if the data from the organisation do not fit the theory.

Useful when you want to find out about one organisation, when one organisation is considered to be an exemplar, or to compare a few organisations and identify the key differences in approach.
Less useful for drawing generalised lessons that can be applied to any other organisation, although there may be some.

Grounded theory

This approach examines the same event or process in several different settings or organisations. The researcher carries out a process of sampling, making comparisons between samples, using these to evolve a theory. When no new insights emerge from new data, the researcher has reached theoretical saturation. Some experts recommend no prior reading, but others suggest reading the literature beforehand to familiarise yourself with the territory.

Useful when you have plenty to time to immerse yourself and do repeat samplings, testing your data on subsequent samples.
Less useful when you need to do something quickly and produce results immediately.

Mixing and Matching: A Word of Warning

Mixing different research methods from different philosophical backgrounds may strengthen a piece of research by adding to the generalizability, while providing richer insights.

However, there is a danger that mixing methods in this way simply adds another layer of complexity and the two parts of the design will not join together coherently. The researcher also needs to be skilled in the use of both types of method and not just one.

The most important aspect of the research design is that it answers your research question. If this can best be done by using mixed methods, then go ahead.

If, however, one single type of study will adequately answer your question, then it is probably best not to complicate it.